The Visible Community

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.


‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

–Matthew 5:13-16

Today, we resume our pondering the life of discipleship where we left off last week, i.e., with Jesus on a mountain amongst a crowd.  In that same conversation with the disciples where Jesus delivers the Beatitudes, he issues this rather earthy and cryptic declaration describing the impact and the purpose of discipleship, calling the disciples both salt and light.  


Let’s unpack that declaration a bit.


First, by impact, I mean that Jesus seems to be interested in unfolding for the disciples the effect that their “blessed” lives will have on the world.  They will be salt and light in the world.  Importantly, just as Jesus emphasized through the rhetorical rhythm of the Beatitudes, here, Jesus tells the disciples what they already “are,” not what they will be or must become.  Jesus is speaking about actualities, not potentiality.  As they were described as “blessed” in the Beatitudes, in this extended metaphor they are reminded that they “are” salt and light.  As salt, disciples heal of the world, transforming the world from one state of existence to another and preserving it into the future, just as salt does.  As light, the disciples reveal who God is and what we are all called to be as fellow creatures of the Creator, brothers and sisters of our divine parent, integral characters in the narrative of life and faith.  In a literal way, discipleship is enlightening as to who we all are and whose we all are.  At the risk of being too clever, disciples are healers and revealers.  


Significantly, Bonhoeffer wants to emphasize that disciples do not offer healing and revealing through some received skills or practices by virtue of their being called by God.  Rather, they are healing and revealing.  Their very lives embody healing and revealing, salt and light, through their direct engagement with the world.  They do not offer salt.  They are salt.  They do not offer light.  They are light.  Saltiness and lightness are not commodities peddled by disciples but integral descriptions of who they are bound up in how they live in the world.  


That leads to the second aspect of discipleship that Bonhoeffer believes the text from Matthew’s gospel illustrates.  Connected to the idea that their lives provide healing and revealing, Bonhoeffer suggests that the purpose of discipleship is to serve the world through direct and real presence.  Surprising to some, discipleship is not a calling away from the world.  It is a calling into service within the world for the world.  It is not about abandonment but attachment.  It is not about distance but about discerning the purposeful role of faithful engagement and service to the world in transformation of and benefit to the world.  As it turns out, discipleship is as much about following as it is about servant leadership.  


This is all well and good.  The fact that discipleship means living lives that heal and reveal is interesting.  However, in all practicality, what does that mean for our lives and us?  What does it matter?  How are we salt and light?  How are we healers?  How are we revealers?


I think that there are many ways that our lives of faith might heal and reveal.  However, here, I want to look at a least one practical way of considering this particular reality.


Our lives provide curing and enlightenment whenever we willfully enter into each other’s lives and intentionally settle down, sharing space and risk and success and failure with each other.  I am not talking about a kind of sharing that describes a kind of coincidental occupation of the same place at the same time.  Rather, I am describing a kind of existence that is deeply present, a kind of presence that involves a type of knowledge about each other that is not found in mere conversations but through shared experience and loss and joy.  Such a sharing is not shallow.  Such a sharing is found only when we take time to get to know each other’s pasts and each other’s dreams, each other’s strengths and each other’s weaknesses.  It takes time.  And, it takes intentionality.  Moreover, it takes a dedication to resist efforts at passive or accidental or tangential sharing of our lives and to combat efforts at habits and commitments that dislodge or dissolve connectedness.  


In a world defined more by mobility and fad than fixedness and permanence such a witness and embodiment seems all the more necessary yet all the more difficult. 


Concretely, the poignancy of that need for the healing impact of a deeply shared life seems more evident in a society blighted by a housing and economic crisis that forces families to abandon homes and communities in order to find new, cheaper places to live and other work.  The tragedy of what has happened over the past decade and the corresponding requirement of the faithful to pursue and witness to different economic and housing policies that center on building communities more than building wealth seems patent. 


Do not get me wrong.  Wealth and the building of wealth is not the problem.  Recall the proverb tucked into the First Letter to Timothy in the New Testament: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (6:10). 


Piercing it is! 


Money does not seem to be the problem.  Rather, the problem is with the assumption that building wealth (and with creating systems that enable the building of wealth) must take precedence over building lives together and over promoting polices that build and encourage community.  Wealth exists to serve our communities and us . . . not the inverse.  In many respects, we (and the systems we created) seem to have forgotten that.


In practical and profound ways, a call to be salt and light appears, also, to manifest in calls for transformation of our society to imagine the social ramifications of our policies as much, if not more, than the financial outcomes.  There must be a way of doing both, of enabling economic and communal growth, of strengthening the social fabric and the financial bottom line.  


Bonhoeffer seems to suggest that he envisions a different way forward.  The life of faith is always about a new economics, a new way of living in the household of the world.  It is a way of living more indicative of shared life than of achieved success, gracious giving and receiving than aggressive earning.  Such a life of discipleship will not be easy.  It will, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, be costly indeed.  But, as we have learned through our most recent social and economic experiences, so will the alternative.  


So, live well.  Live with each other.  Be transformed and envision the change that such transformation requires.  


Have a great rest of the week and see you along the way.


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